Belfast Telegraph

Declan Bogue: Why losing Steven Poacher's voice is real pity

Speaking up: Steven Poacher banged the drum for weaker counties during time at Carlow
Speaking up: Steven Poacher banged the drum for weaker counties during time at Carlow
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

The great shame of Newry-based Steven Poacher leaving Carlow's coaching team after three glorious years there is the loss of he and manager Turlough O'Brien providing an articulate voice for the lower-division counties, just at a time when GAA's Central Council seem determined to cut them adrift with the establishment of two distinct levels.

Poacher is not a man that fits everyone's tastes. There will be many who believe he was too keen to contribute in the media, while the style of football Carlow played was held up as evidence that whatever they were trying to achieve, it just wasn't cricket, old boy.

They may not realise it, but those voices find themselves strictly on the side of the establishment. While in charge of Fermanagh, Rory Gallagher found himself subject to the same one-eyed judgment.

Smaller counties have the right to dream. Their dreams may not be as grand as others, but to get their big day out and take on the aristocracy was all they ever craved.

Look at Poacher's quotes on stepping down from a gruelling three-year term and see if you can formulate a counter-argument.

"I went to Newry this year and watched Down play Mayo in front of 15,000. And you are thinking to yourself, 'If Down were playing Leitrim or Wicklow in a Tier Two game, which is quite possible, are people going to come out and support that?' Of course they are not," he explained.

"I love it when people say it is not about the media coverage, it is not about column inches. Of course it is. The media is the most powerful tool in society. The media influences young people to play sport, to be like their heroes on the back pages of the paper. Just like young people seeing senior players in Carlow live on TV against Monaghan or Tyrone with the field swamped at half-time.

"I used to say to people, 'Who won the Joe McDonagh Cup last year?' And I knew it was Carlow but few people could tell me that.

"That's what is going to happen. People can promise the world but it is going to have a massive impact on the game. It's going to have a massive impact on the numbers going to the games. It's going to have a huge bearing on how the game is going to go and I think we need to tread carefully."

But the truth is that serious football people - those that are actually involved in coaching and playing the game rather than lobbing in their hot takes - respected what was achieved in Carlow. A first promotion out of Division Four in 33 years, Championship wins over Wexford and Kildare, and Dr Cullen Park packed for games against Monaghan and Tyrone along with an eventful day in Portlaoise against Dublin that drove the greatest side ever to distraction for the first 40 minutes.

The fact that someone as respected and loved as James McCartan would make a move and get Poacher in as coach of the future of Down football with the Under-17 team says all you need to know about him, especially given the well-known rancour that exists between Poacher and some high-profile administrators in the Mourne County.

He may come across as light-hearted for the most part, but the depth of his dedication to his role can be found in the annual coaching conferences he puts together.

This Saturday, he is hosting another event at St Joseph's school in Newry where he is a teacher. Speaking at it will be former international rugby player Bernard Jackman on the theme of 'building resilience in players'.

The two outdoor sessions are hosted by Kilcoo player and now Monaghan coach Conor Laverty and Meath's Colm Nally, while there is a talk inside by the respected broadcaster Maire Treasa Ni Cheallaigh, who is also a sports and exercise psychologist. That's some heavy-duty input and over 300 coaches from across the island are expected to attend.

As for his own battle against perceptions, Poacher has said: "We were banging the drum surely. But we were banging the drum for the weaker counties, for the level of injustice and the financial imbalance in the country which is ridiculous."

He will be missed as an authentic voice in the media. Plenty will ask if it really matters and yeah, you can look at the current Dublin team and see that they don't engage whatsoever while the football season is ongoing.

But Poacher and O'Brien raised the profile of a smaller county in tandem with their expectations and demands of their players.

Donnelly's injury a major blow for Red Hands

To those watching from the outside, it would seem that all is in a state of flux in Tyrone right now. The latest news will come as a huge worry.

Over the close season, their Garvaghey training complex could well have done with revolving doors. From last year's backroom staff, Peter Donnelly departed a full-time role as what is now becoming known as head of athletic development.

He took another job with Ulster Rugby, but it is understood he was keen to remain in a part-time capacity with his county. Somehow, it didn't work out like that.

Thoughts that his new role would forbid such a commitment were then skewered when he linked up with Monaghan in their new-look management team headed up by Seamus McEnaney.

Soon after, 2005 Player of the Year Stephen O'Neill also left.

He had been brought in with a specific brief of helping the forwards.

While it is hard to apportion credit for any player's development without seeing these things for yourself, the fact that Cathal McShane was converted from a wing-forward to the joint-top scorer in this year's All-Ireland series along with Sean O'Shea - winning his first All-Star in the process - surely owed something to O'Neill's input.

Manager Mickey Harte has moved swiftly to plug these gaps with former Antrim player Kevin Madden recruited as coach and former Ulster Rugby strength and conditioning chief Jonny Davis coming in ahead of pre-season training.

But the latest news will be the biggest blow. With Matthew Donnelly now out for six months having severed a tendon that holds his hamstring to the bone, they are not just losing a captain but someone who has earned the right for the team to be built around him.

Against Cork in the Super 8s game, he was sent in to keep McShane company closer to goal for the second half. He affected the contest like few others are able to with his strength, ball-winning and composure.

When he plays around the middle, he breaks defensive lines and gets in behind the cover.

Without him, Harte will have to ponder a significant rejig of his team. This will be presented as an opportunity for others, but some players are irreplaceable.

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